I read an article yesterday entitled: Cognitive dissonance in Egypt (https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/mina-fayek/cognitive-dissonance-in-egypt)
For months now I have been thinking about this as an explanation for our impasse in Northern Ireland. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we human beings like to hold our beliefs and actions in harmony and when we don’t we are uncomfortable. That very act of believing one thing but acting like we believe another is cognitive dissonance. When I listen to the public debate I hear words that suggest a willingness to find agreement, even at times to respect differences. But the actions tell me a different thing. For example, when people say we need to reach agreement for the good of those who are waiting for operations or for the good of victims yet here we are six years on from the Consultative Group on the Past and we are still having the same debate. It’s hard to say that actions have matched words. We’ve been through two sets of intensive negotiations since and here we are again with everyone agreeing it wouldn’t be good to keep going until Christmas. As it feels right now Christmas won’t be long enough.
The discomfort that those in negotiations must feel leads to the blame game with which we have become all too familiar. Everyone gets so uncomfortable that they want someone else to fix it and resorting to blame is an attempt to force someone else to fix it. Of course it won’t work because the other who is meant to fix it is also feeling uncomfortable and playing their own blame game. And so the merry go round that arises from what I call our trauma based reality because cognitive dissonance is itself a result of trauma.
I don’t think we should get too carried away about being traumatised. There are many who have suffered deep trauma but we can’t all occupy that ground. If we do we diminish their experience. But we have become familiar with trauma behaviours and we simply repeat the patterns in our public life. That pattern of repetition does violence to those with genuine trauma experience because it reinforces what they have already experienced – that they didn’t matter enough to be treated well, that their loved one were dehumanised and murdered, that they were depersonalised by the violence they experienced, that no one was really listening when they wanted to tell what it was like.
individuals experiencing seemingly unresolvable cognitive dissonance need to be provided with the support they need to find a pathway through the discomfort. But what of our public debate and our impasse? Two possible approaches to the challenge seem to me to have mileage in them.
1. Become aware of the dissonance. This bringing to consciousness enables people to step back from reactive behaviours and gives pause for thought as to what can be done.
2. Examine the dominant definitions of the place we are in and see if an alternative is possible. For example, it is said by some that we can’t govern ourselves or get along and that the peace process is finished. Might we say that we have entered a new phase of the peace process, that some of the efforts we have made have not turned out as we thought they might and that it is time to try something else? If we could say that then we release ourselves from the trap of failure and defensiveness that immobilises.
It seems shallow to say that we have come a long way. But we have. Reaffirming the basic commitments that got us to where we are is a good start to settling the discomfort and giving the space to apply ourselves to developing a road map to navigate us through the impasse. We have to find a way through so that we do not do more violence to one another.